Wednesday, August 06, 2008

My Education Was Not Entirely Wasted

In my experience a great part of academic life is the feeling of being extraordinarily stupid. You spend long days and nights working on a problem, and when you come up with the solution, it's so obvious and simple that you kick yourself for not seeing it before. Some of your better work often seems too easy -- one of my best papers on Hume, for instance, interprets Hume's discussion of coherence in Treatise 1.4.2; the research consisted of actually looking up the footnote to Part II that Hume himself explicitly gives. Monkeys with typewriters would eventually have hit on it; the only reason almost nobody had taken the trouble to take the footnote seriously before is that they were distracted by other issues. It was a very well-received paper when I delivered it; I felt a bit foolish, though, taking credit for a new and interesting way of looking at the passage when in fact it consisted entirely in -- reading the passage Hume says we should read. And, of course, when I actually took the trouble to read the passage I felt a bit stupid for not having done it before, since Hume virtually puts out a sign saying, "If you want to understand this passage better, go read this other passage." The list could be lengthened considerably. Much of it, of course, is just the mind playing tricks; but it's common enough that you sometimes wonder. But occasionally you do find, to your surprise, that you really and truly do know your field. I had a bit of this experience just now reading a question raised about Kant at Pea Soup; I looked at the question and said, "Ah, but Kant's directly quoting Thomasius." And this is both definitely, provably true and not at all obvious. For one moment I felt quite clever.

But now I have to go back to feeling extraordinarily foolish for not giving an obvious quotation from Bérulle, from virtually the first page of a work I was quoting anyway, in an article on Malebranche and the French School, despite having read the passage several times and missing each time the fact that it was exactly the quotation needed. It never does end.

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